Eulogy for a Mad Farmer: In memory of Don Halcomb

What is happiness but preparing its place?

What is its monument but a rich field?

-Wendell Berry, from “Prayers and Sayings of The Mad Farmer”

The focus of much of academia is our outputs: how many journal articles, scores on student evaluations, attendance at workshops, grant dollars brought in. The production of knowledge is cast in either the romantic light of the mad professor scribbling away in their office, or the cold rationality of the data table or lab report. I don’t think we talk enough about the soft and deeply personal side of our work, and the innumerable relationships that it takes to keep the intellectual machine chugging along.

Which is my overly intellectual way of avoiding my emotions and getting around to saying that the Kentucky agricultural community is grieving the loss of a beloved farmer. This past month Mr. Don Halcomb was laid to rest on his family’s seventh generation farm in Schochoh, an unincorporated community over in Logan County. Seems like everybody involved in farming knew Don or knew of his reputation as an independent spirit and a thought leader. Scott Smith once told me that Don “may be the smartest farmer in Kentucky.” For those of you who don’t know Scott, that’s high praise indeed.

Part of the Halcomb farm, site of our field day

First and last encounters

I first encountered Mr. Halcomb in abstentia. On a field-day at his family’s farm last summer I walked the test plots of barley and rye that they were growing in collaboration with UK extension researchers and stakeholders from the distilling industry. It was an almost painfully perfect day complete with a locally-sourced meal prepared by kids at the high school, and the kind of sparkling conversation that comes from passionate people sharing their knowledge and curiosity.

His two sons and their wives impressed me both with the graciousness of their hospitality and with their innovative spirit. Turns out they came by those traits honestly, thanks to Don. On one of the tables that day was a copy of a home-printed spiral bound booklet with the title “A 30 year Wheat Safari in Kentucky.” Inside was a speech Don had delivered to the Practical Farmers of Iowa in the summer of 2017 where he openly shared the lessons he’d learned experimenting with no-till farming and wheat breeding. I saw just enough flipping through the pages to know that if I wanted to understand the heart of a progressive farmer, he was a man I needed to meet.

Later that summer I was able to spend a day with Don, his sons, and his long-time friend and co-conspirator Dr. Dave Van Sanford. They showed me around Schochoh and we talked about the history of their farm. Our conversation wandered through farming, plant breeding, community, and family. I had hopes of returning for another visit, but time and Don’s progressing illness kept that from happening. I received regular updates from Dave and the family, and I sent what little support I could offer. In the end what I have is the audio recording of that one precious day, and I have been struggling with how to honor that gift.

Test barley on the Halcomb farm

Footprints

While Mr. Halcomb is the subject of this story, it turns out I’m not quite ready to tell it. I’m not even sure it’s mine to tell. Which brings me to the question of how we as researchers and fellow food-system collaborators understand our relationships with each other. I owe Dave Van Sanford a great debt of gratitude for introducing me to the Halcomb family. As I told him, the relationships that we as researchers cultivate with our community are priceless; they are made through years of trust building, knowledge sharing, and mutual risk-taking. To bring me in to the fold of a 30-plus year relationship was an immeasurable honor. It also reminds me to sit with deep appreciation of the partnerships we’ve been so fortunate to develop through our work. This blurring of the line between the personal and professional is so hard to navigate and sitting with grief helps illuminate just how much we cherish each other.

Being at a loss, I’ll close with an excerpt from a letter I sent to Don before he passed, and the extension of my profound gratitude to all of you who are our Food Connection family.

“In telling the story of your trip to England, you referred to [another farm family] as “innovators for generations,” and it made me chuckle because that’s precisely how I’ve come to see your family: early no-till adopters, traveling the world to learn new farming lessons, developing new seeds to support farmer’s independence, funding wheat research to benefit farmers and eaters rather than just input suppliers, developing knowledge and markets to support estate grown grain. Innovators all the way down…

You also spoke about an English farmer who told you the best fertilizer is the “footprints of the farmer.” This strikes a deep chord with me… It is such good and humble work to tend the land, feed the people, and care for the community. I am so thankful for the footprints you’ve left for us to follow.”

__

If you’d like to make a donation in Don’s memory, the family has invited contributions to The Boys and Girls Club of Franklin-Simpson, Kentucky. Don was a long time supporter of their community garden efforts, and proud of their service to the community. You can donate via the donate button on their Facebook page, and add a note to your donation that it is in his memory: https://www.facebook.com/bgcfs/

Smiling Don (002)
In Memory of Don Halcomb: Husband, Father, Farmer, Neighbor, and Friend

Author: lilianbrislen

Rural Sociologist and regional food system practitioner

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